It’s hard to think of Bernie Birnbaum without smiling. He was very special to me and he taught me so much. (See: Bernard Birnbaum, CBS Award-Winning Producer, Dead at 89.)
Early in my career at CBS News, when I was a very young and very inexperienced reporter, I worked with him many times. Often, I watched him disarm someone who was clearly hostile to the idea of a television camera nearby.
“I’m Mr. Birnbaum,” he would say. “Have a cigar.”
After that, few could refuse. His warm smile and his roly-poly figure were the very antithesis of the image of a hot-shot network television producer.
Sometimes, it seemed that Bernie could do anything.
In the fall of 1963, right after the CBS Evening News had gone to a half-hour from the old 15-minute format, Bernie and I were assigned to do a story about the Boston Strangler. In those days, the idea of doing a story that would run three minutes and thirty seconds was brand new. Everyone could do a story in one minute and fifteen seconds. Many people, like Bernie, could do a half-hour or an hour. But no one had ever done a long story for a regular news program. We were breaking new ground.
So off we went to Boston on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle, bouncing around in a propeller plane as we flew through a storm.
“We need to find a little old lady who is very frightened.” Bernie said to me. “Someone who lives alone in a neighborhood where there’s been a strangling.”
“Bernie,” I said. “We have three days to get this story done. We could look for a month and not find a little old lady like that who is willing to go on camera.” But, Bernie was insistent and I just shook my head, certain that what he wanted was impossible.
After a very bumpy ride, we got to Logan Airport and went to the Hertz counter to rent a car.
“Hey,” said the clerk. “CBS News! What are you here for?”
“We’re here to do a story about the Boston Strangler,” Bernie said.
“You should talk to my mother!” the clerk exclaimed.
We had not been in Boston for five minutes and we found Bernie’s frightened, little old lady. We went to her home and Bernie convinced her to go on-camera. Trust me when I say that with Bernie carefully directing the cameraman, she looked like Whistler’s Mother, rocking chair and all.
That was typical of Bernie. He knew what was needed and he always brought back the goods.
Bernie loved his family, his wife Ronnie and their daughters Deborah and Amy. It was very hard on them, and on him, that he was away so often, traveling to one news story or another. Often, his job took him to dangerous places.
Back in the early ‘60s, Bernie made several trips to Vietnam. Those were the days before e-mails and satellite phones when cables were the only way for the newsroom to communicate with people overseas. In those days, I worked weekends, the Assignment Editor manning the CBS News desk in New York. If Bernie was in Saigon, I knew that Ronnie would call, usually on a Sunday morning.
“Why do they always send my Bernard,” she would ask.
To Ronnie, he was always Bernard, not Bernie.
I tried to reassure her that all was well and I always gave her the same answer:
“They send him because he is the best.”
For Bernie, there was also his CBS News family, the people who worked there in the days when it was the very best news organization in the world, the CBS News of Charles Collingwood, Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt and all the rest. Kuralt, the most talented person who has ever worked in TV News, trusted very few producers. He trusted Bernie Birnbaum.
The obituaries for Bernie that ran last week noted a great program he produced with Kuralt, “Christmas in Appalachia,” the story of poverty in the coal mining country of Kentucky that aired in 1964. The obits failed to mention another program they did together the following year which I always believed was one of the greatest programs that CBS News ever broadcast. It was called “Christmas in Vietnam” and told the story of one company of soldiers fighting in the jungles south of Saigon.
While Bernie and his cameraman were filming, a booby trap bomb exploded, killing one soldier and badly wounding another. At home, America watched as the wounded man, who eventually lost his leg, was treated moments after the explosion. We had never seen anything like that before on television. It was one of the reasons Vietnam was called “The Living Room War.” For years after that program was broadcast, Bernie stayed in touch with that wounded sergeant. It says a lot about Bernie that he cared so much about him.
There was another side of Bernie that few people knew. He was a pack rat. For years, he squirreled away film, great shots that he knew he might need again some day. If you really knew your way around CBS News, when you couldn’t find something you wanted in the fabulous CBS News archives, you called Bernie. A little while later, an unmarked container would show up on your desk. As long as you gave the film that was inside back to Bernie and not to the archives, you could always call him again.
Last September, I saw him for the last time. There was a memorial for Walter Cronkite and Bernie was there. I’m so glad I had that brief chance to tell him that I owed him so much. I will miss him.
Sam Roberts was a reporter, producer and executive at CBS News from 1962 until 1995 and worked with Bernie many, many times.